The on-going discussions on local government reform in Ireland include the question of whether there should be unitary authorities covering city and county councils as well as the necessity of creating greater balance between the roles of the manager and the councillor. Examples, primarily based upon UK and mainland European models, have been suggested by various commentators, as templates on which institutional reform could be based. There has been less time, if any, given to possible models in other parts of the world.
It will come as no surprise, that change is a feature of local government across the globe. Efforts to drive greater efficiency are a hallmark of much reform, regardless of the location. In some countries there has been a history of amalgamation followed by the break-up of larger authorities as national and State governments seek to deliver greater effectiveness at local level while also sustaining democratic principles and public engagement. It is probably fair to acknowledge that no matter what reforms are undertaken and no matter how successful these might be, local government reform is particular to the communities concerned. In some moving towards larger authorities might be positive while in others the opposite might be the case. The common theme seems to centre around the values and cultures of the communities concerned. Develop a reform process which is sympathetic to local values and culture will generally move a reform process in the right direction, doing the opposite often results in poorer governance and reduced policy effectiveness.
In the case of Dublin there is on-going pressure to move towards an executive mayor role covering the Greater Dublin Area. Alongside this are calls to amalgamate the four Dublin Authorities into a single unitary authority. There is a need to comprehensively debate the merits of such ideas and to learn from other similar scale, successful, city regions across the globe. Examples from the UK have been used but are there more appropriate examples from more successful cites else-where? Using, as a template for reform, cities which are less successful than Dublin would hardly be a good start. Yet this has been the case in some of the media commentary in recent months. Why benchmark Dublin against Manchester when better examples such as Helsinki, Copenhagen, Portland, Auckland and Brisbane might provide us with better examples of successful city regions?
Both Brisbane and Auckland therefore could well provide us with more interesting examples of a unified local authority framework. Auckland, in particular has come through a recent reform programme which has seen the amalgamation of the regional authority and seven city and district councils into a unified Auckland Council with an executive mayor, Len Brown, a governing council of 20 members and in an effort to ensure greater local democracy, over 120 elected members of 21 area boards. The city-region, now ranked in the top 10 of cities globally, covers 31% of New Zealand’s population (some1.3 million), has 8,000 employees and an annual spend (largely self-financed) of over $3 billion. The reforms in Auckland arose as a result of recommendations from the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance which reported in March 2009. The structures are now fully in place since October 2010. The Commission drew on extensive international experience from among others Richard Florida, Robin Hambleton, Michael Lyons and Tony Travers along with the local authorities in Toronto, Seattle, Melbourne, Sydney and most notably, Brisbane. The objective was to use this experience to position Auckland so that it would continue to be a successful city-region on a global level.
Brisbane was a central model it seems for the Commission as it has had a unified authority since 1925 under an executive mayor. There was therefore a considerable body of experience with unified government and like Auckland and indeed Dublin, a system which drew its origins from the Victorian English local Government system. The comparability between Auckland and Brisbane would also have been a critical concern for the Royal Commission. Both cover around a third of the populations of their respective political structures, New Zealand in the case of Auckland and Queensland in the case of Brisbane. Local to national policy roles would therefore have been concerns, politically as well as administratively while the capacity for both to compete in an international environment is a major objective, particularly given their relatively peripheral locations in the world marketplace.
Issues, in other words, which will have a resonance for Dublin. The Brisbane City Council structure provides a useful model which Dublin, like Auckland, could look towards in the event that a decision is taken to move towards a unified authority framework in Greater Dublin. The decision to move towards a unified structure is, of course, no small matter. The European cities of Helsinki, Copenhagen and Stockholm might arguably be more appropriate given their top of the table position in European conditions. Nonetheless in the event of a decision to have a unified authority, Brisbane and most particularly the process undertaken in Auckland might be well worth consideration.
In both there are two pillars on which local democracy is based: political and administrative. The cities are under the clear political control of an elected executive mayor to whom the chief executive officer and senior management reports. Centre-local relations are based upon the political process. In Brisbane the 26 councillors are elected on a ward basis representing approximately 30-35,000 people. They each have a ward office staffed by City Council personnel who oversee delivery of local services. Extensive public engagement is a hallmark of the political role of each councillor. This is used to ensure an on-going engagement with local communities in the absence of local structures below that of the City Council. Responsibilities of Mayor, Councillor and Chief Executive are clearly delineated in the City of Brisbane Act 2010. This is further underpinned by the fact that the Brisbane Mayor has the largest political constituency in Australia, something now reflected in the Auckland Mayoralty. Both are therefore responsible for the two largest authorities in Australasia. Both mayors are responsible for developing and implementing policies, leading the business of both councils, preparing the budgets which are adopted by the councils. They direct the CEOs and staff whilst also ensuring that both councils are active in the commercial development of their respective regions.
One of the key “weapons” of the Mayor in Brisbane is that the Council is a shareholder in the utilities supplying the Region and in that role is represented on the relevant boards. This includes water and transport utilities and other development/investment vehicles for the region.
One of the key lessons from Brisbane and more recently, Auckland, is that the two mayors are now among the most powerful in their National/State roles. The Mayor is second only to the Premier of Queensland, “Cando Newman” who was previously Mayor of Brisbane while Mayor Brown is seen as second to only the New Zealand Premier. This, of course, has significant implications for State and national Ministers in Queensland and New Zealand whilst also impacting upon the respective administrative systems. One thing that has been learnt from Brisbane is the central role which the Mayor plays, something which would clearly be a significant challenge for national and not just local administration in the case of Dublin.
A further point of note from Brisbane is the application of long-term thinking to its development. The impressive City economic strategy reaches out to the 2030’s while its immediate local consent process is underpinned by a highly consultative process based on local neighbourhoods. In other words before the professional staff of the council prepare the plans they must engage in “blue sky” thinking with local communities under the leadership of the relevant ward councillors.
Regardless of any decision to move towards a unified authority for Dublin, not to mention an executive mayor, those thinking about reform in Ireland could well spend some time looking at what is in place in Brisbane and Auckland. Going there might be a good idea but even this is not necessary. A read of the Royal Commission Report for Auckland might be a start!